Origin of IRON CHAMBER OF MEMORY
This month I have not had a day-job, and so for the first time have had enough free time to work like a full time writer.
This is the novel I have been waiting eleven and a half years to write. I wrote the manuscript in five weeks, and spent a week polishing and revising.
I sent it off to Castalia House this Monday, so keep your fingers crossed for me. (I have also begun a new project for Castalia House called MOTHS AND COBWEBS, a juvenile, which I will describe in a later post.)
The novel is called IRON CHAMBER OF MEMORY.
The story idea came to me during the month of December in 2003, just a few days after my rather dramatic conversion from total Christ-hating atheism to total fidelity. I was recovering from major surgery, and still had one foot, so to speak, in the spirit world.
This story idea came to me in one moment, complete, perfect, in immense detail. I dragged myself out of bed to spend one afternoon writing the outline down in one go from start to finish.
Nothing like this has ever happened to me before, and nothing since.
I often speak of writing as if I am taking dictation from the muse. Usually I am exaggerating a little, or being a little modest. Here I am not. It is as if some other spirit than mine contrived this story, and all I have done is write it down.
The thing was eerie. There are certain ideas and themes in it which are quite a bit like other things I have written. An amnesiac hero trying to discover who he really is, for example, appears in nearly everything I write.
I can also see where the basic ideas come from: that there is a room in a house where whenever the protagonist enters, he remembers he is in love with a woman who also loves him, but only inside that chamber, and nowhere else. The conceit is taken from the deservedly obscure novel A HAUNTED WOMAN by David Lindsay. I say it is deserved obscure because Mr Lindsay did not exercise his full range of his powerful imagination here, and did not explore the several odd but logical ramifications of the idea.
But there are other themes here utterly unlike my usual fare, and other ideas I know not whence they came.
The only element I added was the setting. Originally, I meant it to be set in Oxford, England, at Magdalen College, but I since discovered a small channel island called Sercq or Sark, called a Dark Sky island, and, until 2008, the last still-functioning feudal fief in Europe.
The small and beautiful manor house of the Lord of the island, Le Seigneurie, I had to make into something huge and haunted as Gormenghast, and I add a frankly impossible old growth forest which could not fit on the tiny real island; but aside from these indignities of poetic license, the strangest details in the story are the ones taken from life, and these are the least likely to be believed. I did not make up that Sark is a Dark Sky island, once invaded by a Nuclear Scientist, nor that the language spoken there has never been written down.
The overall vision encompassed in the story is strange, and I am not sure if it counts as science fiction or magical realism or mainstream or what it is. Not only is the narrator unreliable, reality is unreliable.
Part of it is a love story, part of it is a story of treason and revenge, part of it is hallucinatory, and part, the best part, is a metaphysical thriller after the fashion of Charles Williams, where the mystery is not who murdered whom, but what is ultimate reality.
Let me favor you, dear reader, with the opening scene:
PROLOGUE: THE WHITE BONEYARD
Standing and frowning in the New York snow, Hal Landfall realized he did not recall the name of the person pushing his mother’s wheelchair toward his father’s grave.
He had been overseas for the last four years, studying. It seemed long ago now that he had last been home. He remembered how his sister Elaine had insisted he go, take the rare opportunity. In less than a year, their father’s health declined like a rapid childhood in reverse: there was a day when his last tooth fell out, a day when he took his last upright step, a day when he spoke his last word.
When he had offered to abandon his studies and come home, Elaine had vowed she could shoulder all duties their father, for all his life, had so carefully performed, and watch and tend their mother. Hal Landfall could not recall, even among his simplest, earliest memories, a day when his mother was entirely well.
Elaine, it is true, said she recalled the brighter days of older years, when their mother could play with her children, sit on the nursery floor and roll a ball, or clap and sing rhymes, or hold the children and repeat their simple, goodnight prayers.
He recalled little other than the dark bedroom door, frowning at him. He had to reach over his head to touch the knob. Shouts and screams of different voices—but it was always his mother’s voice—would come from the door. Young Hal was forbidden to touch the door, even when nightmares woke him at midnight, and he needed a gentle voice or loving hand. Books had been all there was to take the place of human voices he never heard, brutal athletics of human contact. Dad told him to be nice to the woman with the wild and empty eyes, and not upset her. He never told what upset her or why. Hal tried not to complain when she bit him.
Elaine said she recalled custard they once had shared, something actually made by their mother in the kitchen, not bought from a store, not take out. Father never cooked.
As his eyes got bad and his hands shook, Father still prepared the needle for Mom’s injections. He carried her upstairs and downstairs. There was a wheelchair on every floor. He spoon fed her. He carried her to the bathroom. He said she had no weight.
Hal had been in England when it happened. It happened suddenly. He talked to them both. Elaine had passed the telephone to their mother, but Mrs. Landfall did not remember who Hal was.
Instead she kept talking about a black dog. “I hate the black dog,” she said, in the voice one might use confiding secret to a chance-met stranger. “Sometimes I see him stand upright on the road, under the streetlight outside the window. The black dog howled when Henry went. I think he was laughing at me. I’ll get up in a moment, as soon as I’ve rested. I have to remember how to walk. I don’t remember what it feels like. ”
Elaine was not at the funeral. His sister was snowed in, trapped in some Midwestern airport until further notice, and, with Hal returning to the British Isles that same day, it had seemed impossible to cancel or delay.
Mounts of white snow were on all the gravestones. The angels wore caps and cloaks of white, as did the spears of the fence. Beyond the fence, Hal could see the East River, and the traffic moving slowly through the gray weather. It seemed unfair that so many people would have so many places to go, families and friends unmarred by tragedy. Hal felt a bitterness in his heart: it was as if the world could tolerate to continue only because it forget the tortures of the world.
After the priest was done saying the words, Hal tucked the hawk-headed walking stick he always carried under one arm, stooped, and reached down and picked up his mother’s ungloved hand. There was neither cap on her head nor scarf at her neck, and the sweater was one he remembered from his youth, a favorite thing of hers to wear in all weather, now torn with holes and no one to patch them.
“Who are you?” she said.
“I am your son. I am Hal,” he said. He gave his mother a warm smile, but his eyes were icy, as he glared at the nurse lolling behind the wheelchair with a bored look on her face. The lady was dumpy and potato-shaped. “You don’t seem dressed warmly enough!”
“Henry will take care of me,” said Mom. “He always takes care of me. Did you hear Father O’Brien just now? I don’t know why they made me come out here on a day like today. I might miss my programs!” Mom looked cross. “What is going on? Who died? Was it someone I know? I want to ask Henry about it. He said he would see me.”
Hal did not realize at first what she meant. When her words sank into his soul, they left burn marks. Hal patted her hand, unable to speak. She gave him the look one might give a kindly stranger.
She was shivering violently now, wearing only her old, threadbare sweater and no hat. Snowflakes were landing on her head, and she did not even raise a hand to brush them away.
“If I could remember where I put the door key, I would let years flow in. Rose and silverwhite and iron! And gold beyond that! Old years, green years, and the good ones would wear all white. Oh! How I adore the crowns and the trumpets! So pretty! Henry knows where I put it. He always takes care of me. Where is he? I was talking to him just now.”
Hal straightened up, looked around. There had been other mourners, two veterans from Mr. Landfall’s old unit, his partner and one loyal customer from his days running a bookstore, a student he had tutored, and a neighbor. All had said their farewells earlier, and were drifting away, silent, down the paths out of the little churchyard and back into crowded streets where tall building loomed, indifferent. Hal’s found his eyes continuing to dart left and right, looking to find his sister, despite that she was not coming, could not come.
He glared again at the nurse. He had been told her name by Elaine, and give the other details, but it had escaped him. “Where is this place you keep her? Who are you?”
The nurse gave her name and the name of the sanitarium. Saint something or other. Hal asked her to get his mother back into someplace warm, someplace decent.
The fat nurse shrugged, wearing the same serene expression as a cow chewing a cud, and said, “We all want some place more decent, honey. Don’t mind me. I just do what I’m told. They say take her out, I take her out. You say take her back in, I’ll take her back in. No problem, no bother, no worries.”
Hal’s hand tightened on his walking stick, as if, without knowing it, part of him were toying with the idea of bludgeoning the indifferent nurse with it. Was no one talking care of his mother?
Mrs. Landfall must have been following part of the conversation, for her trembling voice broke in, querulous: “When can I go home? Henry will take me home.”
The casket had been closed the whole time. Hal had insisted on that point when Elaine had been making arrangements. Seeing him lying motionless would have been too terrible for his old and senile mother, a punishment worse than any crime deserved.
The priest, a bent-backed, bald, short man with an odd, sad smile and eyebrows of astounding size and brightness like two albino caterpillars on his forehead, came over. He spoke in a soft, kind voice to Mrs. Landfall. Hal did not hear was the priest said, but the mother’s voice was sharp and clear in the cold air: “I’ll have Henry leave it for you in the black iron moly chamber in the church, so you’ll remember.”
The old priest turned to Hal, put out his hand, “So this is Little Henry?” The priest had to crane his head to look up at Hal, who was quite tall. “Father O’Brien. Your mother has spoken often of you. We hope for great things, heroic things, in the struggles ahead. Keep your sword always by you, and your prayers ready at hand, eh, what? These sorrows, these present sorrows, will melt when this world melts, eh! The last enemy to be conquered is death, but there are others before that. You are deployed to England, I take it?”
Hal spoke in a puzzled voice, “Did Mother tell you I was a soldier or something?”
The little priest’s face fell. “Well, she said, ah…”
Hal said, “I am in England working on my master’s degree. In Saint Magdalene College. Elaine arranged the funeral, so I could come during Christmas holiday. Did she think I was in the army? My mother, I mean.”
The little priest looked bewildered. “We serve in the hosts of the light, and you are born of a great warrior. For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world.”
Hal doubted his hearing. The words were strange, unearthly. He vaguely thought he had heard something like this before, but the memory eluded him. He shook his head sharply, and said, “My father served in the Navy for five years before I was born. She does not remember me. That is what she is thinking of. She does not know me. My own mother.”
“She speaks of you often.”
“We are both named Henry. I am Henry, Junior. I go by Hal.”
“But if you are not kept away by your official duties, why weren’t you here, earlier? When your mother needed help?”
Later, Hal did not recall what he answered, or even if he answered. They were interrupted by a commotion. In the distance, through the snow, beyond the belt of trees and the low fence of wrought iron surrounding the churchyard, was a city street filled with gray snow and honking cars. Some stray dog, a big, black mutt, was motionless in the intersection, barking at a truck, and the cars had stopped.
At that point, mother became hysterical, and the nurse took her back into the church. The little priest took out a small stoppered bottle of liquid and his prayer beads, and walked toward the fence, toward the noise of the barking. Hal was alone. Only the two gravediggers were left, stony-faced foreign-looking young men, who were cranking the geared wheels to lower the casket into the ground.
Hal stood in the snow. He wanted to follow his mother and comfort her, but he did not move. He shifted his soaked feet in the snow uneasily, his best shoes wetted, a fierce look on his square and simple face, as if he wanted to strike someone or break something.
He wanted some explanation from his sister about this sanitarium where his mother had been abandoned. Why was she not staying at Elaine’s apartment, as they had so often discussed? What kind of place could it be, run by what kind of venal fools that negligently or cruelly sent old ladies out to funerals in the snow without a coat?
He wanted to yell at his sister, but her absence cheated him of that release.
More than that, he wanted some explanation from the priest about this world where his mother had been abandoned. Had heaven forgotten mankind? What kind of world was it that negligently or cruelly allowed a senile woman’s husband to decline so swiftly, and die so suddenly, when he was so loved, and so needed?
But Hal had a taxi to catch, holiday crowds to wrestle, and an airplane to wait in endless lines to board, and a sea to cross. He stalked away with none of his questions answered.